Monday, April 16, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST” by William Shakespeare (probably first written c.1595-96; first surviving publication a quarto of 1598, but possibly also published earlier in a quarto now lost)
Thank you for sending me the fair copy of your manuscript for my comments and criticism. I think you should stop doing this. When you first arrived in London, it was reasonable for you to seek my opinions on how well you had patched up old plays by others or done similar hack-work. But surely by now you are reasonably well-launched in your career as playwright. You do not really need my approval any longer, do you? I do not say this in any spirit of rancour. I am always happy to read what you have yourself written (though I am glad you have never inflicted another Titus Andronicus upon me); and I am of course happy to receive your manuscript of Love’s Labour’s Lost before you hand it over to the printers. Let me say at once that in reading it, I have found it a pleasant comedy and I enjoyed at least some of the conceits of your language. Perhaps you could advise the printers to put some version of this praise on the title page when they get around to printing it.
But we must take the rough with the smooth, mustn’t we? So I am afraid that in what follows, I am going to have to say some negative things as well as some positive. I hope they are of some help to you in your further endeavours.
First, the positives. I was delighted that this time you thought up your own plot rather than running to Holinshed or North’s translation of Plutarch or an Italian novel or some such, and it is a very clever idea for a plot. The King of Navarre and three studious young men of his royal court decide they will hide away for three years and engage in nothing but study to make themselves wiser. To this end, they forswear the company of women and the distractions of love. But when the Princess of France arrives on an embassy with three ladies of her royal court, the young men are at once distracted out of their study, Love triumphs over Scholarship and by ingenious (dare I say “conceited”?) argument, Love is shown to teach more than Study does.
In a play, I do like a concept as simple and straightforward as this. Of course I thought it very convenient that the King of Navarre falls in love with the Princess of France; Berowne falls in love with Rosaline; Longaville falls in love with Maria; and Dumain falls in love with Katharine. What a bother it would have been if, say, two of the young men had fallen in love with the same woman! But I accept that you are writing a light comedy and the probabilities of real life can be ignored in this context. Besides, your concept would have been ruined if we had been distracted by rivalries between two of the male characters.
I really enjoyed the way you gave carping, witty Berowne a fitting female counterpart in witty Rosaline. Some of what they speak is much ado about nothing, but I feel this idea of a war of wits between lovers is something you could develop in some future play. How fitting that Rosaline should say of Berowne “a merrier man, / Within the limit of becoming mirth, / I never spent an hour’s talk withal”.
I congratulate you, sir, on Berowne’s excellent soliloquy at the end of Act 3, where he has to admit reluctantly to himself that he is in love, and speaks of Cupid as
“This wimpled, whining, purblind wayward Boy
This senior-junior giant dwarf, Don Cupid,
Regent of love-rhymes, Lord of folded arms,
The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans:
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents:
Dread Prince of Plackets, King of codpieces,
Sole Imperator and great general
Of trotting paritors (O my little heart)
And I to be a Corporal in his field,
And wear his colours like a tumbler’s hoop…”
Yes indeed – it is a great example of a man trying to talk himself out of something to which he is really inclined.
I delight also in your ironical conclusion, where news of the death of the French king comes, the Princess of France must break off her embassy, and the four young men must go into a year of seemly mourning – without the company of women – before they may resume their suit to the women they profess to love. This could have appeared too abrupt and unlikely an ending, but I congratulate you on giving to the Princess the speech beginning “A time, methinks, too short / To make a world-without-end bargain in…” This allows for a plausible transition from the joyful to the solemn. And might I add that for the first time, I understood the full import of your new play’s title. As for the Spring and Winter song with which you conclude the play, I believe this is the best thing you have so far done in the art of song.
As always with your work, my friend, there were many individual lines that stuck in my mind and rang true to life. I am sure many a sorry student would agree with Berowne’s complaint “Small have continual plodders ever won / Save base authority from others’ books.” When the King describes the Braggart Armado as “One, who the music of his own vain tongue, / Doth ravish like enchanting harmony”, I thought of many such a one of my own ken. And indeed one can only admit the truth of Maria’s observation that “Folly in Fools bears not so strong a note, / As fool’ry in the wise, when Wit doth dote.” While you put the words into the mouth of the Pedant Holofernes, I nevertheless recognise the wit of the line “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity, finer than the staple of his argument.”
But now, alas, let me speak of some infelicities in your design and execution. Is it not a little foolish to have Boyet – essentially the older chaperone of the French ladies – explaining, in a long speech to the ladies and to us in Act Two, how the King of Navarre has spoken, when we have ourselves just heard the reported speeches? The speech of nearly 80 lines which you give to Berowne at the end of Act Four is, in and of itself, a masterpiece of complex and conceited wit – I love your lengthy comparisons of the luminosity of women’s eyes with the illumination of true scholarship; and I love your witty paradoxes arguing that, to follow nature and foreswear an oath is not to be forsworn. Indeed I read and re-read this speech with much pleasure. But is it not a self-contained sermon rather than a dramatic speech, more suited to a chapbook than a playscript? Its lesson is already implicit in what we have seen acted out, and here the wit of Berowne becomes an oration and, for all its flashing wit, perhaps in part a display of pedantry which would fly over the heads of your impatient audience.
Speaking of pedants…
When we already have in the play a pompous pedant in the person of the Braggart Armado, is it not over-egging the pudding to introduce exactly the same sort of verbose quibbler in the form of the Pedant Holofernes? Indeed, when Holofernes converses with the foolish curate Nathaniel, we have three characters with convoluted verbal diahorrea. I understand this sort of thing keeps the lads at the Inns of Court smirking with superior laughter – especially when one of the pedants misuses Latin tags and the like – but it does try one’s patience. In small doses, misusages are funny, but give us excess of them and surfeiting the appetite is sickened, and so dies. (I do appreciate, however, your clever conceit of having the Boy Moth, and even the Clown Costard, sometimes defeating the pedants at their own verbal games.)
There is another thing that worries me about your Braggart Armado. You at first present him as a model of hypocrisy. Armado seeks to punish the Clown Costard for canoodling with the wench Jaquenetta, when the King’s edict has forbidden such behaviour. But then Armado himself hopes to seduce the same wench. Much more, I think, could have been made of this situation than the lame matter of the two letters being delivered to the wrong recipients. Armado’s moral downfall could have been much funnier. In fact, in my mind I put together this situation with another moment in your play where the humour is forced and underdeveloped. Of course it is funny to have Berowne, himself false to his vow not to be distracted by women, hiding behind bushes to overhear the King do the same forswearing. But goodness! When both the King and Berowne hide behind bushes to hear Longaville similarly forsworn; and then when Berowne, the King and Longaville are all hidden behind bushes to hear Dumain forsworn – we feel that we have heard the same joke three times over. Might I make a suggestion? The next time you wish to expose, in comedy, a pedantic hypocrite, might I suggest you involve him in a more complex plot? Imagine what fun it would be to have a whole group of plotters hiding behind bushes to see a pompous and self-righteous fool reveal what he really was. You might build even more fun into the joke if you were to have the fool dress in something outrageous to further deflate his assumed dignity – yellow cross-garters or some such. This is just a suggestion.
In terms of structure, my main objection to your play is implicit in what I have already said. Too often the comic situations are static set-pieces overlaid with verbal banter or high poetic rhetoric, rather than comedy developing out of plot and character. I am sure that the skill of your company of players will draw laughter from the scene in which the four young men disguise themselves as Muscovites, and disport themselves before the knowing young ladies. Perhaps such skill will also make enjoyable the more ridiculous characters’ attempted pageant of the world’s great Worthies. But this is the stuff of masque – probably more diverting on the boards than it is on the page. I have said I admire the general concept of your play, but it has little forward momentum.
As for style and text, there are two main problems. Please realise the disadvantages of rhyme, even in comedy. Of course we esteem the wit of a man who, extempore, can spin witty rhymes. But speech after speech of rhyme is somewhat numbing. In your play, even the banter of Berowne and Rosaline droops from too much rhyme. Dear William, be more sparing in your future use of rhyme when it comes to playwriting.
Finally, there is that awful matter of the topicality of so many of the jests in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the narrow audience at which so many of those jests seem pitched. We both know how unlikely it is that this merry, frivolous little farce will hold the stage for long, but if it does, its many in-jokes will rapidly become incomprehensible. They might raise knowing chuckles from courtiers and university men, who recognise your sly allusions to illustrious names from our recent French wars, and your hits at rival intellectuals. But frankly, even now, most of the wider audience will simply fail to undertand much of what is intended to raise the laugh. This is true, too, of the puns, the wordplay, the misused Latin tags.
I had a strange dream last night after I read your play. I dreamed that, by some miracle, your plays were still remembered in four hundred years’ time. I saw audiences moved or amused by the plays you have yet to write. But for this play, I saw only armies of pedantic scholars drawing up long notes and explanations of jokes that no longer made any sense. It was quite dead to new sensibilities.
I say none of this to discourage your future work, which I am sure will improve as greatly as this play is an improvement on Titus Andronicus.
As always, yours in confidence and under the seal,
21st Century Footnote: After the ghost of Henry Garnet dictated the above letter to me, I chanced to take off my shelf Harold Bloom’s 750-page blockbuster Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human (1998), clearly the American critic’s attempt to say the last word sbout Shakespeare. I turned to the verbose chap’s 27-page chapter on Love’s Labour’s Lost, and found Bloom declaring that “I take more unmixed pleasure from Love’s Labour’s Lost than from any other Shakespearean play” and praising its “linguistic exuberance” and “vocal magnificence”. Like so much Shakespearean criticism, most of Bloom’s chapter consists of a synopsis raisonee, with commentary upon long quotations from the play (it fills up the pages, folks). His chief assertions appear to be (a.) that the play shows Shakespeare as a virtuoso of various styles; and (b.) that it presents a very sophisticated philosophical argument on the debate between study (Art) and love (Nature), a matter which concerned various sages and intellectuals of Shakespeare’s own time. Doubtless this is true, but the approach is all too familiar to me from much academic criticism. The idea of the play is what beguiles and enchants the critic, rather than its real dramatic impact. It is, for the critic, an intriguing intellectual artefact, and therefore worthy of inflated praise. There is also the critic’s delight in being able to tell us of obscure intellectual quarrels from Shakespeare’s time. Let us then praise Love’s Labour’s Lost, because it allows us to show our superiority to the undiscerning hoi-polloi who have not mastered such scholarship! To each his own opinion, I suppose. But I turn with relief from Harold Bloom to William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespear’s [sic] Plays, and find Hazlitt declaring rubustly “If we were to part with any of the author’s comedies, it should be this”. Being the fair-minded man he was, Hazlitt proceeds to praise some good things in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but he does note that the play “savours more of the pedantic spirit of Shakespear’s time than of his own genius”. This is my own chief objection to Love’s Labour’s Lost. In many respects, Bloom’s critique, with its overblown claims for the play, gave me more laughs than the play itself did.